Book Review: The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk
Location: One Saturday, in my bed in Daegu, South Korea
Rating: Google an appropriate synonym for mindfuckingly beautiful
In 1998, a young South African makes his way to New York in pursuit of what Toast Coetzer calls “the Afrikaans American Dream”. Nearly a decade later, altered in more ways than one, he boards a plane and flees the smoldering embers of his life. But what happened in the nine odd years in between?
Jaco van Schalkwyk’s debut novel centres around the Alibi Club, a beloved dive bar in Fort Greene where everybody knows your name (Cheers!) and the third drink is on the house (if you leave a tip).
We watch the protagonist – in whom the reader can’t help but recognise elements of Raymond Carver, Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and even Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway – as he tests the waters of his new reality. We see him leave the relative safety of the iconic Brownstone for the first time, scavenge for discounts at the local stores and finally find a job, and a sense of belonging, at the Alibi. Perched on this window, we can observe the major events of that time and feel his pain as the repercussions of 9/11 reach into the relative safety of the ghetto.
Gritty, dark, a series of impressions – The Alibi Club reads like a love letter to a place that the author also called home for some time. Loosely based on real events yet fiction in its entirety, The Alibi Club lays bare the wounds of gentrification – when your home is no longer recognisable to you because rich people decided they want to live there.
The Alibi Club is not just another happy expat story, its magic lies in the trials that befall the protagonist, the daily struggle to keep your head both under a roof and above the fray.
Perhaps my favourite passage is Chapter 5, where the narrator tries to woo a woman with flavours from home:
Van Schalkwyk’s prose is intricate in its simplicity, decorative without superfluity, vulnerable yet strong; a world of thoughts, experiences and poetry captured in less that 200 pages.
Postscript: I covered the launch of Van Schalkwyk’s debut in 2014 and had the chance to speak with him again in 2015 at the Kingsmead Book Fair: